In an act of sovereignty overriding the United State’s First Amendment prohibiting “the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion,” the Crow tribal government sponsored a large billboard sign proclaiming “Jesus Christ Is Lord on the Crow Nation” in late December.
While the Crow constitution protects religious freedoms, Senator C.J. Stewart said it doesn’t prohibit the “Jesus is Lord” resolution he introduced that unanimously passed in 2013 called, “The Crow Tribal Legislature to honor God for his great blessings upon the Crow Tribe and to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord of the Crow Indian Reservation.”
Stewart said it was something he and a few others had thought of doing since he was first elected to the legislature in 2007. Before the resolution passed, however, the Crow tribe had long embraced Pentecostalism. Elements of the faith like fasting, praying, healing through prayer, were similar to traditional Crow faith.
In contrast to the earlier nineteenth-century Jesuit and Catholic priests who introduced a structured version of Christianity, “One of the main draws of Pentecostalism for Natives is that it’s so informal and embraced individual spiritualism,” noted Crow Tribal Historian Tim McCleary.
In 1920 Pentecostal missionaries John and Georgia Forbes from the California’s Four Square Gospel Church came to the Crow Reservation. While there Joe and Nellie Pretty Eagle Stewart’s son passed away from an illness. Georgia comforted Nellie and eventually converted her to Christianity.
Since Nellie was also a respected Medicine bundle carrier, she was seen by locals as someone who had natural authority to be a minister. “All Crows may not feel like that today, but that’s how it was perceived at the time,” McCleary said.
Montclair State’s Mark Clatterbuck, whose field of study is Native American encounters with Christianity, has completed extensive interviews with Crow and eastern Montana Natives in regards to their Christian beliefs.
“Nellie Pretty Eagle (Stewart) I think you can really call the founding pioneer of Crow Pentecostalism. She was the first Crow Pentecostal Pastor, and she was regarded highly and respected as a healer,” Clatterbuck said.
“She’d go fasting up in the mountains and would receive songs that would have power in them, and so she was a real interesting blend of traditional ways with the arrival of Pentecostalism.”
Small Pentecostal gatherings at homes eventually evolved into larger Sunday gatherings and the fellowship and feasts served afterwards brought the tribal members together.
“In Crow Agency in the 1920s, there wasn’t much for people to do and these meetings would go all day and night, so even people who weren’t even Pentecostal would go down to the meetings just to watch,” McCleary said.
Nellie died in 1937, and in the mid-1940s a minister named James Roper—impressed by the Crow dedication to the faith—figured if the Crow could get their own ordained ministers the faith would erupt.
In 1951 at the urging of Roper, five Crow men attended the Life Bible College in Los Angeles. A name that would make a legendary impact among those five was Harold Carpenter of Lodge Grass.
“Harold was extremely charismatic,” said McCleary. “Almost every Crow minister today—with the exception of the Stewarts—got their start in the ministry because of him. He put a lot of thought and energy into his services, and became really popular and tribes throughout the Northern plains flocked to hear him speak.”
However, the distinct separating of traditional versus Christian beliefs accommodated Carpenter’s popularity.
“Harold Carpenter really took a hard line against the traditional ways, maybe more than anyone,” Clatterbuck said. “He really set the tone of, ‘You really got to make a choice in either you follow Jesus and be filled with the Holy Ghost, or follow the Native ways.’”
That legacy would endure with many of the preachers he mentored and influenced still about today, although recently opinions in being completely against Native spiritualism has wavered as a middle ground is sought by some.
For his part, C.J. Stewart made every precaution when drafting his resolution to avoid controversy within the tribe. “By all means, we didn’t want it to disturb or offend anybody,” Stewart said.
In the resolution, the Crow word for God, Akbaatatdia, was used. Jesus is referred to as Ischawuuannaukaasua, or, “The One with Pierced Hands.”
“They’re really eager to downplay those existing hostilities,” Clatterbuck said. “Yet, they’re really trying to find ways to embrace Crow traditionalism in a way that doesn’t clash with their Pentecostal faith, and I think that’s a new movement and shift that’s taken place in the last few years.”
Stewart said so far the tribe hasn’t gotten any negative feedback from the Crow public.
“I think it’s because people realize it’s something that needed to be done,” Stewart said, noting a high spate in deaths recently.
However, Stewart noticed a lot of flak from other tribes and non-Natives elsewhere.
“They’re saying we’re giving up our culture and things of that nature, but you know what? We still speak our language, we still practice traditional beliefs, and we have the largest tribal buffalo herd and hunt them. We’re not trying to assimilate anybody, we’re just referencing our Lord.”
A sister bill to the “Jesus Is Lord” resolution declares nation to nation support for the state of Israel and that also passed unanimously.
“You look at all of this support for these bills and think, ‘Wait a minute, all of these legislatures aren’t Pentecostal Christians, so what’s going on there?’” Clatterbuck said.
“But Pentecostalism has been around some 90 years, and it’s really taken a foothold not just religiously, but socially and now politically. As we can see in a very real way, it’s developed a very powerful voting block.”
Younger generations who spoke to Clatterbuck told him how while growing up, pastors called traditional ways “demonic.” Many are trying to reconnect with their Native roots and spiritual traditions that were perhaps neglected if they were raised by Pentecostal parents.
Clatterbuck said the Pentecostal understanding of how God’s blessings work has had a profound impact on the Crow tribe that seeps deep into family and social circles that’s hard to separate from the overall social dynamics of the reservation.
He said, “I think it’s been a real struggle with them trying to combine the two identities, but I also think that’s a fascinating new movement and shift that’s taken place in the last few years.”